Social services departments could face being taken to court by
the newly formed Disability Rights Commission over mental health
and adoption services that discriminate against disabled people,
legal experts have warned.
Councils are particularly vulnerable to high court challenges by
service users with mental health problems who often receive a lower
standard of service compared with people with physical
The warning shot follows last week's launch of the long-awaited
commission which has wide-ranging powers to take public and private
sector employers to court or tribunal if they breach the Disability
Discrimination Act 1995.
"This is definitely an issue for social services," said legal
officer at Radar Samantha Fothergill, who added that the level of
services provided to people with mental health problems was often
lower than those for people with physical disabilities.
Adoption services could prove another legal hot spot if disabled
parents can show they are being excluded as potential adopters
because of their disability, added Fothergill.
Social services departments could also come under fire for
taking too long to make "reasonable adjustments" for disabled
people, required under the 1995 Act. According to Fothergill this
could be centred around the time it takes to send out council tax
bills in Braille for visually impaired service users.
Bert Massie, chairperson of the 15-member commission, last week
warned social services directors that it would be paying close
attention to local authority services for disabled people. "There
need to be basic support mechanisms such as a personal assistant to
help them get dressed in the morning," said Massie at a launch
attended by the minister for disabled people Margaret Hodge. "You
clearly can't ignore social services provision in creating a better
society for disabled people," he added.
As first revealed in Community Care Massie warned employers and
social services departments that it would not hesitate to "use the
argument of force" if necessary.
Disability charities have already compiled a dossier of
potential cases of discrimination for the commission to tackle,
But Massie was keen to play down speculation that the commission
will be a lawyer's bonanza and stressed that it will aim to settle
out of court if possible. One option will be entering a legally
binding agreement with an employer to ensure they change any
discriminatory policies against disabled employees or service
Social services directors have pledged to work closely with the
commission. They met Massie earlier this month and plan to develop
a code of good practice for social services directors dealing with
service users as well as a protocol for dealing with
Ian Davey, chairperson of the disabilities committee of the
Association of Directors of Social Services, welcomed the
commission and admitted that the quality of local authority
services for disabled people did vary from region to region.
In May, the commission will launch a consultation on a statutory
code of practice for service providers to ensure disabled people's
access to goods, services and buildings. This relates to part three
of the 1995 Act due to come into force in 2004 banning
discrimination in the provision of services, goods or